You ever wander what would happen if Neil Gaiman had been angrier and more inclined to drug use while writing Neverwhere? Well, look no further, because have I got a story for you. London, not Below, but right there, next to you on the tube, around the street corner, in the apartment next door, knocking on your door, full of terror and blood and magic as twisted as the human mind…
It took my years to get around to reading this, despite wanting to before it was even published. Then I read it, and… well… I’ll try to explain…
Our story begins with Billy Harrow, handsome and enjoying a normal amount of success in his adult live. He works as a preservationist and curator at the Museum of Natural History in London, where they display a tank with a preserved Architeuthis.
Or at least they used to; At what is supposed to be the end of a by the books tour Billy finds the squid and tank are gone, with no hint of who did or how.
There are very few rules in Mieville’s London, and nobody knows what they are. Or, more appropriately, everyone is living by their own set of rules and doing their best to make everyone else knows that their rules are the most important. There are giant squid worshiping cults, men with fists for heads, a talking tattoo, people who cut open the city concrete saws to read it’s literal guts, and spirits that move from toys to statues to religious figures and can speak through their mouths. It’s a strange, dangerous world Billy must survive, making unlikely allies and terrifying enemies.
And oh… what enemies they are. Goss and Subby are two of the most frightening villains I’ve read of; one a chatty, ruthless murderer who is so casual in his cruelty that any vestige of humanity is stripped away upon their earliest introduction. The other is a silent boy of ten or so, and he… makes people go away. To explain more would give away a great deal, but let’s just say that when Goss and Subby are mentioned, you feel an acute discomfort, a fear akin to what anyone in the story feels when they hear those names. They are the worst, hands down; making the likes of Croup and Vandebar seem like two gentlemen out for a stroll.
Billy is in a race against time, with few allies and too many enemies; he travels through London with a cultist at his side, desperate to find the squid and stop the encroaching storm of fire that every seer in the city is screaming about.
There were so many interesting ideas in this tale, fantastical, horrific, and fascinating- but it is flawed as well, a mess of thoughts that sometimes barely seem to connect. What should have been a straightforward story of Billy and Dane, his cultist companion became a twisted tale told from too many perspectives.
Let’s start with the police force, or “cult squad” as they are referred to throughout the story. They could have not existed at all, and the course of the story would not have been altered. Nothing they do changes Billy’s situation, and they even get some innocents killed because of their lack of foresight and preparation. Also the character of Collingsworth was one of the least likable I have ever read. I hated her, and it got to the point where I would skip entire pages where she was present; luckily for me nothing she did mattered, so I missed nothing important. (I read some reviews for the book after writing this and man, people like her??? She’s cruel, manipulative, disrespectful, and has a dozen gross habits. To each their own, I guess)
Then there is Marge, the lover of a character that dies very early in the story and insists on getting herself entangled in the plot. Once again, nothing she does matters as she wonders the streets of London, confused and lost and in constant danger. And despite having risked her life to discover the fate of her dead boyfriend, she has another one by the end of the story, so I guess she wasn’t too hung up on the first one.
On one hand, I’m glad I read this story because it showed me how out there fiction can become. It was fun reading about so many fantastical, out of this world ideas, but I needed them to be grounded in a better story, something more coherent then what we got. The ending was convoluted as well; just when you think things are winding down and everyone’s finally going to get back to their flats for a well deserved cuppa, all of a sudden it’s fire and shattering glass and a disorienting, unnecessary wrap up for a story that was already pretty damn confusing.
Final Conclusion: If you want to write surreal urban fantasy then you should absolutely read this book, if for nothing more than the crazy ideas that Mieville threw together. But if you’re looking for well plotted romp through London with memorable characters and a plot that makes sense, may I point you to Neverwhere?